My eyes are watering and my nose is watering. I have an allergic reaction to the dust in Varanasi. 🙂
On my way from the airport to the city I asked the taxi driver if Mayawati (Chief Minister, Uttar Pradesh. a.k.a. Behenji, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party-BSP) had made any positive changes to Varanasi. Abhi to bahut gandagi nikali hai, he said. She has cleaned up a lot of the garbage. Mayawati is an interesting character. Autoctratic, despotic, crass or an effective politician? Depends upon your p-o-v. From mine I could see a lot of rubbish on the streets. If that is called ‘cleaned-up’ then it must have been worse before. That was my first impression of Varanasi. This is a historic, heritage city. A major tourist town, an important army base during the British Raj and generally the centre of the universe for all Hindus. Governments have come and gone, parties with varying ideologies have ruled Uttar Pradesh, why then has no one bothered to make Varanasi a better place? As an Indian I was livid at the chaos, the dust and the dirt. There was a shopping mall and SUVs but a complete lack of civic sense. And if the governments have not bothered to clear the mess then what are the people doing?
Varanasi is an intensely political place. All Indians have an opinion on everything. The citizens of Varanasi seemed even more opinionated and passionate. Ask the boatmen that navigate the Ganga every day. A bunch of them were repairing a 100 year old boat. Very skillfully hammering in nails and measuring with some ancient looking (or makeshift?) instruments. They looked like they were one with the ghats and the atmosphere of Kashi. They knew their Mother (Ganga) was dirty and they tried their best to look after her but it was not enough.
I asked my taxi driver about the riots. To those of us who live away from Uttar Pradesh Varanasi is the epicentre for Hindu-Muslim riots. Yet the last riot in Varanasi happened after the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992. There was the bomb blast at the Shankar Mochan temple but no riot. Why? Because the people of the city rallied together to prevent politicians from exploiting the situation. Then why not the cleaning of the Ganga or paving the streets with tar? Or is it that way for Western tourists to feel spiritual within the s$%^t?
Yet I will go back again and again. I pray for the day Kashi is clean and beautiful. I pray for the day the Ganga is restored her divine water; for her devotees to realise that she is not to be abused. This lifestream that flows from the Himalayas. My first view of the Ganga left me breathless. Calm, serene and majestic. She flowed on and on as far as my eye could see. From the balcony of my guest house on Meer Ghat. As I walked that evening from Meer towards Assi Ghat I could feel her vibes. The patience of a loving mother indulging in her silly children who only take and don’t give. No wonder she shows her wrath in the monsoons. The politicians don’t feel it though. They are safe in their bungalows preaching ‘Hinduism’.
There are many things I could have done that first night in Varanasi. But the main thing for me was to pay homage to the presiding deity of Kashi. I went to the Vishwanath Mandir and stayed back for the last aarti of the night. When Lord Shiva is put to bed. The temple shares space with the Gyaanvyapi Masjid that Aurangzeb built. So of course it is a controversial place. No electronics, no nothing. You have to pass through very tight security with the female guards groping every body part. Just like entering Parliament House but then that is the Government of India this is GOD. 😉 I am not a temple person. It is hard for me to go in and ‘pray’ in any particular place when the entire universe is a sacred to me. Human behaviour intrigues me though. Especially frenzied devotees. So I went in with the usual paraphernalia of flowers and milk etc. I stood in a line to see God and I bowed to him. I am grateful for all that I have. As I came out of the sanctum sanctorum the priest put a tilak (dot) on my forehead. Whisper your name and iccha (wish) in Nandi’s (Lord Shiva’s vehicle) ear he said. I replied that I had nothing to ask of God. He has given me everything. So, he said, can I have my dakshina (donation) then? Kaheka dakshina, I asked. Dakshina for what? For the tilak, he said. Temples are commerce, a business. Money grabbing brahmins fooling innocent devotees and making moolah. Does a person really need an ‘agent’ to communicate with God? What is it that Nandi will do that a direct application to Lord Shiva won’t? No wonder religion is so important to maintain power equations across the world. I have decided that I shall declare myself enlightened in a couple of years, shave my head, don saffron and dole out pearls of wisdom to the world. At least I shall make a lot money and travel in comfort! And think of the perks!
Varanasi is a place that evokes many emotions. Love it, get angry about the infrastructure, curse the politicians and then take walk along the ghats. The mad human activity will calm you and fascinate you. The temples, the mosques, aartis and azaans, co-existence, inter- dependence, Banarasi silks, the classical Hindustani music that floats through the air, spaced-out Western toursits in search of moksha, academics from Banares Hindu University looking for tomes at Harmony Books, Lebanese restaurant owners, louts, young kids coming up and saying ‘Hello Maydum’, the heritage structures, the business of death and many more things happening at one place all together is like a microcosm of existence. Varanasi is highly recommended and I am ever so grateful to Rebecca for pushing me to visit.
I took a ride on a cycle rickshaw from Assi to Dashashwamedh Ghat at night through the traffic and potholes. It was as exciting as the yak ride I once took on Chhangu lake in Sikkim. I latched on to the closest ‘holdable’ thing for fear of slipping. These are my little delights in life.
There are more to come in this trip. Tomorrow I take the Konkan Railway to my ancestral village. A long overdue visit to the Konkan along with my parents. I don’t know if there is access to the internet from the region. So I don’t know when I will write my next blog.
(I have lots of photos but will put them out only when I have figured out a way to give them an order.)